Post by Uri Brito and Dustin Messer
In a recent sermon, Andy Stanley made the staggering observation:
When I hear adults say, ‘Well I don’t like a big church, I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody,’ I say, ‘You are so stinking selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids…anybody else’s kids.’ You’re like, ‘What’s up?’ I’m saying if you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people and grow up and love the local church.
Stanley has since apologized in the way modern preachers apologize: via twitter.
While we take him at his word (or tweet, as the case may be), this was not simply a slip of the tongue. While he may be sorry for the way in which he communicated the message—even sorry for a specific sentiment in the message—one can’t fake the sort of passion exhibited by Stanley as he described his antipathy for small churches. Again, we believe he’s genuinely sorry we’re offended, but Stanley clearly has heartfelt feelings about non-megachurches (microchurches?) that didn’t begin or end with the sermon in question. Below are three reasons we feel such a sentiment is harmful:
First, it’s not very gutsy. A bit of history may be of help here. Stanley’s North Point Church has its origin in a traditional Southern Baptist Church, First Baptist Atlanta. FBC is exactly what you’d expect from a prominent, big-steeple church: men wear ties, the organ is played, hymnals can be found in the backs of pews, etc. Growing up, says Stanley, he saw those extra-biblical activities as essential, rather than secondary. In a CNN interview, Stanley put it this way, “We were Southern Baptists and everyone else was wrong. I grew up believing that we were the true Christians.”
A paradigm shift occurred in Stanley’s thinking when he discovered the preaching of Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Church. The church Hybels pastored, says Stanley, was “more committed to progress instead of maintaining traditions.” So Stanley left FBC to plant a church more concerned with reaching the lost than criticizing the jean-wearing pastor down the road.
This backstory is what makes Stanley’s recent insult so cringe-worthy. In a twist of Shakespearean proportion, the younger Stanley has become what he was rebelling against. Instead of focusing on progress—reaching the lost, preaching the good news, etc.—Stanley has become the cranky old man yelling, “that’s not how your supposed to do it!” to the little fellowship down the road. He’s become the maintainer of tradition—albeit, a tradition which smacks less of Andy Griffith and more of the sixth season of Friends. Instead of defending the Christmas Cantata, he’s defending the Jr. High section of the church coffee shop. Still, his focus isn’t on Kingdom-progress, it’s on brand stability, tradition keeping. The megachurch movement has gone from gutsy to grumpy.
Secondly, it’s not very graceful. This side of the cross, sin must never be brought up without the hope of redemption. How could it? Jesus has made reconciliation with the father possible! We don’t confess our sin in vain, but in hope. As a pastor, Stanley must not be faulted for bringing up the sin of selfishness. His fault isn’t that he brought up sin, it’s that there wasn’t the option of repentance. How could someone repent? Everyone there were the good guys, the ones who selflessly drove pass 26 tiny churches to find their way to their “big ‘ol church.” If anything, the church was encouraged to feel smug and proud. Confessing the sins of others has a way of doing that to a church.
Lastly, it’s not very grounded. In reality, there are myriad benefits of attending a smaller fellowship. The glories of big churches are spoken everywhere. The luxuries of comfortable seats, trained sound technicians and vocalists, a large staff of dedicated men and women ready to meet any needs, etc. It’s the glories of small churches that are little discussed. While there are benefits to large churches, below are three benefits that make small churches havens of rest for millions of Christians worldwide.
- Small churches do not need to segregate. Sure, many small churches differ on this model. Many of them may even agree with Stanley on dividing our children by ages. “What is best for Susan (8) may not be adequate for Johnny (14).” However the logic goes, small churches are equipped and ready to establish an environment where families worship together during the main service. There may be differences as to what happens during Sunday School, but small churches can effectively incorporate the entire family without feeling the peer pressure of dividing families up at the entrance door. The Bible throughout the Old Covenant incorporates little ones into the sacred worship, to the listening of the Word, and I (Uri) would argue into the eucharistic practices of the body. There is no reason to offer a manifestly difference narrative in the New Covenant. Small churches, therefore, seem most equipped to preserve the ancient model of learning and sharing together from the youngest to the oldest.
- Small churches provide liturgical and historical sanity. Since the priority is not growth, but maturity, small congregations can saturate themselves in history and liturgy, which leads to maturity in the body. There is always the danger of formalizing these things so much that the joy of the Lord becomes a secondary pursuit, rather than the main pursuit in the worship of God. But by and large, small churches find greater contentment in the sacred blessings that come with historical worship and liturgical zeal.
- Small churches emphasize discipleship. Every local body has priorities. Reformational congregations prioritize word, sacrament, and discipline. The reason these three elements are easier to prioritize is because there are fewer distractions in small congregations to pursue them wholly. While many megachurches are engaged simultaneously in dozens of activities and agendas (all certainly noble), it is easy to relegate those three main priorities to a place of lesser stature in the church. The matter of discipleship is an incredibly crucial issue for the church. One-on-one discipleship, learning in a community setting, learning from one another, learning together in worship, learning by kneeling, learning by helping single mothers, widows, and orphans, can all be done more effectively in an environment where faces are consistent and lives are regularly inter-connected.
In the end, small churches are not the problem, and neither are big churches. Churches of all sizes are where the answer to the problem is to be found. In church, the world finds a community not organized around age or race or class, but around Jesus’ word. In the church, the world gets a taste of what is to come, Kingdom-come. Even the smallest of churches carry this foretaste. We must not despise them–after all, God brings big forests out of little seeds!